April 1, 2008 at 11:25 AMNo, not that chiacona. In the March 2008 issue of Strings magazine, there was an article called "Flying Solo" by Sarah Freiberg about a piece called "Chiacona a basso solo" by Guiseppe Colombi, an Italian composer who lived and wrote in Modena, Italy, in the late 1600's.
As Freiberg explains, the piece was probably written for "violone," or an 8-foot instrument with long, pure-gut strings, tuned in 5ths a step below the modern cello. Freiberg, a cellist, re-arranged it for the modern cello and published it.
I've met Sarah once: she is the friend and colleague of a friend, Marilyn Boenau, who goes to my church. Both of them are active in the Boston early music scene. As it happens, the church is having a talent show this weekend in conjunction with their annual dinner. The performances will be eclectic, for example, my daughter is doing a karate demonstration with three of her friends who also go to this church and take lessons at the same dojo.
I've enjoyed playing the Bach cello suites on viola a great deal, and I'm looking forward to playing selections from the first suite again this summer at the Farmer's Market. But I'm always looking for something new to play on unaccompanied viola. Last time I played through my entire viola repertoire in less than 30 minutes. So I started arranging the Colombi Ciacona for viola, transposing it into alto clef from bass clef, where Sarah wrote it. Neither of those clefs is my "mother tongue," and I discovered pretty early on that all I really had to do was move each note up a step if I wanted to be quick about it and not think. But I really wanted this exercise to help improve my facility in alto clef so I kept at the painful process of translating the bass clef notation into a note name and then that note back into an alto clef note before writing it out. I ended up doing this on the bus to work for several mornings: about 15 measures at a time. For a 69-measure piece. I'd get home and play through the measures I'd written that day to make sure they sounded reasonable, since previous adventures in transcribing pieces into alto clef haven't always been completely successful.
I finally finished it this weekend, and so that my teacher would not have to be subjected to my by-hand, on-the-bus scribblings, I put it into Finale NotePad and printed it out to take to my lesson.
My teacher deserves a medal for putting up with the ADD-ish stream of different projects and instruments that I bring to my lessons. I told her I was going to bring this piece, but she'd never seen it or heard it before, and usually has her violin, not her viola, with her at the lessons. Still, she was able to play it, transpose it up an octave where necessary, and suggest phrasings and bowings for discussion. She has a very nice way of making suggestions without making me feel steamrollered. I usually take them, but they feel like a partnership rather than something handed down from on high.
Last night I was practicing it again the whole way through--after all, the talent show is this weekend--and I went back to Italy in my mind. I've been there twice, years ago, both times as an impecunious graduate student. I hiked around Rome and Florence and Venice, met other students on the bus to the Catacombs, survived Stendahl syndrome, and ate lots of gelato. I pictured the warm sun at the baths of Caracalla and thought, I could be the first person ever, on earth, to be playing this piece on a modern viola! How cool is that?
And, with adult students like me there can also be an issue of the student having to provide her own direction and motivation. We aren't aiming to become professionals or soloists so the goals aren't necessarily obvious and we have to find our own. Like other musical (and scientific) experiments, some work better than others. But I think this piece really works!
I still have "violin moments" when I forget I'm playing a viola and find myself on the wrong string, wrong note, wrong position--you name it. And then a couple months ago I was playing the violin and had a viola moment, thought I was in alto clef when I was supposed to be in treble. Still the wrong note, wrong string, but I decided to view that as progress! Like when I was learning to speak German and dreamed in it for the first time.
By any chance are you going to Interlochen this summer? If you haven't heard of it or considered it before, google it. I'm going!
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